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  • St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins of Cologne: Relics, Reliquaries and the Visual Culture of Group Sanctity in Late Medieval Europe
  • Cynthia Hahn
St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins of Cologne: Relics, Reliquaries and the Visual Culture of Group Sanctity in Late Medieval Europe. By Scott B. Montgomery. (Bern: Peter Lang. 2010. Pp. xvi, 207. $60.95 paperback. ISBN 978-3-039-11852-6.)

As Scott Montgomery argues, the cult of St. Ursula and her companion martyrs deserves attention as the most widespread in Europe. Given the treasure trove of relics discovered in a cemetery under the medieval walls of Cologne, identified and disseminated from the early-twelfth century as the relics of the saint's cohort (both male and female), such ubiquity is not surprising. Montgomery's task, however, is not primarily that of discussing the "bones," but rather, as an art historian, "to explore . . . collective imaging, investigating how text, image and relic display . . . fashion[ed] a total cult environment that expressed the power, presence and cohesion of [the] company of the Holy Virgins of Cologne"(p. 3). Excepting the excellent 1997 study by Joan Holladay [End Page 771] in Studies in Iconography, most work on Ursula is in German; so this book, with its extensive bibliography, is a welcome addition for English readers.

Montgomery examines the visual manifestations of the cult from the fifth-century stone plaque of the "Clematius" inscription to the seventeenth-century Golden Chamber of Sankt Ursula, the storehouse of the church's some 120 reliquary busts, 670 additional skulls, and the many other bones that line the walls—arranged to spell out prayers of invocation. Medieval Cologne, with its busts, narrative paintings, and altarpieces, is clearly the primary focus of the author's attention, but discussion makes substantial forays to Basel (a silver-gilt reliquary head), Bruges (Memling's painted shrine), and Renaissance Venice (Carpaccio's frescoes). Unfortunately for the reader, some pieces under discussion are not illustrated, and too often the small black-and-white images do not always reveal the details mentioned in the text.

A discussion of the early foundation of the cult in the second chapter is summary. The treatment of the Clematius inscription is minimal (what is its archaeological status?),and we move quickly through sermons, martyrologies, and vitae to the eleventh century—a moment when Ursula has been identified, in the vita Regnante Domino, as the leader of troupe of 11,000 virgins (not eleven anonymous virgins as per the inscription). The more than 100 surviving copies of the Regnante Domino attest to the new urgency of the cult and seem to have led in short order to the discovery and excavation of the Roman cemetery in 1106 and the rebuilding of the church of "the Virgins."

Nothing is more characteristic of the visual culture of later medieval Cologne than the hundreds of pretty, smiling reliquary busts of painted wood produced beginning in the thirteenth century and, for example, displayed in its churches on the Feast of All Saints or carried in procession by Cologne's young women in an affirmation of civic unity (attested in the seventeenth century, p. 77). Montgomery gives a useful tour of the German scholarship on this and other visual material and emphasizes certain themes he finds compelling: the identification of Ursula with the Virgin Mary, especially as protector; the association of the Virgins with church walls and city walls; the "corporate identity" of the Virgins; and finally, a notion that to enter the spaces of the shrine(s) meant to "become" part of the cohort oneself.

At certain moments, the author digs deeper—as when he provides an explanation of how anonymous relics in Basel were transformed into those of Ursula herself and further supplemented through a gift from Cologne of the head of Pantalus, the Basel bishop who was martyred with Ursula. The result was the creation of a second major center of the cult and a pair of beautiful head reliquaries for the Basel treasury (chapter IX).This short book, however, is primarily a survey of the many artworks inspired by the cult of Ursula. It is filled with appreciative description, historical nuggets, and speculative suggestions...


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